Pro sports’ most-losing teams

“The taste of defeat has a richness of experience all its own.” – Bill Bradley

Spoken like a man who hasn’t lost much, right? Other than his 2000 Democratic primary defeat to Al Gore, Bradley has been a lifelong winner – first as a Princeton Tiger, then with the New York Knicks, and finally gaining a U.S. Senate seat. A man like that can utter a statement like the one above precisely because he hasn’t had much losing experience.

The Los Angeles Clippers, on the other hand – well, let’s just say the basketball team has a little more familiarity with that taste. The franchise, founded in 1971 and long the ugly stepsister to the glamorous (and successful) Lakers, has won only 36 percent of its games. Ever. The Clippers have only been to the playoffs seven times in 39 years. The Lakers? Fifty-six times in 61 years.

The Yahoo! group SuperClipperFanClub hasn’t had a post in two years. Chatroll.com’s Clipper fan club has one member. “Soul Brethren,” one of only 11 members of Fannation’s Clipper club, wrote in a post, “I can’t explain why I like the Clippers. I just do!”

Love the exclamation point.

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In Pictures: Pro sports’ most-losing teams

Albert Einstein supposedly once said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” It doesn’t take an Einstein to see that the Clippers are an insanely bad sports franchise. Under owner Donald Sterling, the team has had just two winning seasons since 1981.

But the Clippers franchise isn’t even the worst on our list of America’s “losingest” teams. The Clippers came in fourth place (maybe the first time the team has finished so high in a contest of any sort). No. 1? Ladies and gentlemen, your Memphis Grizzlies, who have won less than a third of the games they’ve played in the team’s inglorious history. Other losers include the Houston Texans and the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The Grizzlies have an excuse, sort of. An expansion team, starting play in 1995-1996, the Grizzlies spent some time in the basketball wilderness of Vancouver. Still, 14 seasons is long enough to get off the schneid, don’t you think? The team has been to the playoffs three times and has yet to win a game in a seven-game series. Some folks blame it on Michael Heisley, whom Sports Illustrated just named one of the worst owners in sports, for being so thrifty.

Others blame it on John Calipari, who ran a very successful college program at the University of Memphis before fleeing this year to Kentucky, sucking all the winning air out of the town. Me? I blame the name. Grizzly bears? In Memphis? A more fitting moniker: the Memphis Blues, which would describe the malady the team has afflicted on its fans.

No. 2 on our list is another NBA team, the Charlotte Bobcats. The Bobcats have an even better excuse than the Grizzlies: They have only been around for four years. But with two highly successful men – BET founder Robert Johnson and the NBA’s greatest player, Michael Jordan – in the ownership box, it’s hard to believe the team has only won 35 percent of its games.

Behind the numbers

In compiling our list, we measured the win-loss percentage for each team in the NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB; we looked at points-percentage in hockey. This allowed us to compare the teams across leagues. We then ranked the teams 1-13 (the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints tied for third-losingest in the NFL) and pulled out the top three in each league.

We uncovered some interesting tidbits: Save for the 11th-ranked Columbus Blue Jackets (from the NHL), all of the teams on our list were located below the Mason-Dixon line. Is it something in the Southern water? Some carryover from the Civil War? Some Northeast bias?

We believe it had more to do with the population migration to the Southern U.S. in the last 20 or 30 years. Sports leagues have followed the people, putting more teams in southern cities. But that doesn’t explain it all. Only seven of the 13 teams could be properly called “expansion teams,” that is, teams founded since 1990.

Indeed, baseball’s Arizona Diamondbacks, founded in 1998, have won just over 50 percent of its games and won the 2001 World Series. (Weird baseball stat: Only 12 current franchises have won more games than they’ve lost, historically speaking). The NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars, founded in 1995, has won 53 percent of its contests. Being around for a number of decades doesn’t mean you don’t stink: Baseball’s San Diego Padres (No. 12 on our list) and Texas Rangers (No. 13) have no excuse, as they were founded in 1969 and 1961, respectively.

“Without losers, where would the winners be?” – Casey Stengel

Stengel posed a great question here, and it’s one of the reasons that he is one of the most beloved losers in history. Stengel had a long and, at times, successful career in baseball. But he’s best known for coming out of retirement to manage the New York Mets in 1962. His “Amazins” finished in the cellar in each of his four seasons at the helm, but they did so with such comic grace that they were the first team to earn the moniker of “lovable losers.”

There are a few teams on our list that could perhaps qualify for the term, like the New Orleans Saints, tied for sixth with the Atlanta Falcons, winning just over 40 percent of the time. In the 1980s Saints fans called their team the “Aints” and wore paper bags over their heads. That’s love, baby. It helps that lately the team has been competitive and has helped revitalize the city after Hurricane Katrina.

Another lovable loser: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, checking in at No. 5, winning at only a near 40 percent clip. When the team entered the NFL with its swashbuckling logo and pastel orange colors, it was the rumblingest, bumblingest spectacle the NFL had ever witnessed. Coach John McKay was laid back and sported an omnipresent ne’er-do-well grin, even through a fusillade of fumbles and interceptions that led to the team losing 26 of its first 28 games. An anomaly: The Bucs won a Super Bowl in the 2002 season.

Tampa is apparently a good spot to be a loser. The NHL’s Lightning, No. 10 on our list, won a Stanley Cup in the 2003-2004 season. And baseball’s Rays, No. 8, came close to a championship, making the World Series last year. But they’re still losers, historically-speaking, anyway.

“Nice guys finish last.” – Leo Durocher, baseball manager.

The fiery Durocher won 54 percent of the games he managed from the 1930s to the 1970s and a World Series. He also supposedly invented this catch phrase, one that maybe holds the key to the cellar door. You hear that Memphis? Clippers, you listening? Maybe it’s time to get nasty.

The “top” five:

5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Slideshow
4. Los Angeles Clippers: Slideshow
3. Houston Texans: Slideshow
2. Charlotte Bobcats: Slideshow
1. Memphis Grizzlies: Slideshow
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In Pictures: Pro sports’ most-losing teams

Updated Monday, May 25, 2009